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3 Areas of Concern for the Saints Defense Heading Towards OTAs

New Orleans is expected to have an elite defense in 2022. Here are some areas of vulnerability facing one of the NFL's top units.
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Throughout most of coach Sean Payton's 16-year tenure with the franchise, the New Orleans Saints were known for elite offensive production. Over the last four seasons, that narrative has changed to people who follow the team.

New Orleans has owned one of the league's top run defenses since 2018. For the last two years, they've ranked near the top of the NFL in several defensive categories.

The Saints defense reached dominant levels through most of the 2021 season. They carried an offense that slipped to the bottom of the league because of injuries and ineffective depth. They nearly carried team into the playoffs, despite a five-game losing streak at mid-season.

New Orleans suffered a few key personnel losses on the defensive side this offseason. Ball-hawking S Marcus Williams left in free agency, signing a lucrative deal with the Ravens. Veteran S Malcolm Jenkins retired, robbing the team of valuable leadership. Athletic LB Kwon Alexander remains unsigned, though a return remains possible.

The Saints moved swiftly to cover these losses, and are expected to again have one of the league's top defenses. However, here are three areas of concern for one of the NFL's best units as they head towards three OTA sessions in the coming weeks.

LINEBACKER DEPTH

New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) drives Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) out of bounds. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis (56) drives Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) out of bounds. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints have an outstanding duo of linebackers in All-Pro Demario Davis and second-year potential star Pete Werner. Davis is one of the league's best players at any position and is a ferocious playmaker in several capacities. Werner flashed the abilities of a potential Pro Bowler as a rookie and is outstanding against the run and in open space.

Without Alexander, who had his best season in 2021, there is little proven depth. Kaden Elliss is a solid run defender and can be an effective blitzer, but is a liability in coverage. Zack Baun, a third-round choice in 2020, is one of the team’s better special teams players. However, Baun simply hasn't been a fit for the Saints defensive scheme.

Rookie D'Marco Jackson, a fifth-round pick, has terrific open field skills. His combination of instincts and athleticism could make him an instant contributor. Andrew Dowell and undrafted rookie Nephi Sewell will also battle for roster spots.

New Orleans typically plays a defensive alignment with two linebackers and an extra safety. Davis and Werner can stay on the field in every situation and excel in the open field. There is a significant drop off after those two. Jackson has that kind of ability, but has yet to prove it as a Day 3 rookie draft pick.

Re-signing Alexander would give New Orleans a third starting quality linebacker. He has outstanding chemistry with Davis and is a perfect fit for the Saints scheme.

If he’s not brought back, New Orleans needs to keep their fingers crossed for good health from Davis and Werner and a rapid development from Jackson for a situational role.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones (27) tackled by New Orleans Saints defensive tackles Shy Tuttle (99) and David Onyemata (93). Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones (27) tackled by New Orleans Saints defensive tackles Shy Tuttle (99) and David Onyemata (93). Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints defensive tackles were outstanding against the run in 2021. They were a key to allowing just 93 yards per game on the ground and a league best 3.7 per rush. While they were formidable in that aspect of the game, the unit provided little as pass rushers.

New Orleans tackles accounted for only 19 of the team’s 113 QB hits last season. David Onyemata was the only listed defensive tackle to record a sack. Onyemata, who had 16 pressures but just two sacks, had an off year after returning from a six-game suspension. Shy Tuttle is a formidable run defender, but has added little as a pass rusher.

The Saints added free-agent tackles Kentavius Street and Jaleel Johnson this offseason to deepen their interior. Johnson is a better run defender, but Street is an explosive player who should bolster the inside pass rush.

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New Orleans often used ends Tanoh Kpassagnon, Payton Turner, Marcus Davenport, and even Cam Jordan as inside rushers in passing situations in 2021. With their depth along the edge, it's a strategy that should continue this season.

The Saints need better interior pass rush on early downs. Expect a bounce back season from Onyemata, a terrific disruptive presence and freakish athlete. They’ll also need something from Street, Tuttle, or Johnson as pass rushers to make this defense an even better unit.

SAFETY COMMUNICATION

Former New York Jets safety Marcus Maye (20) intercepts a pass intended for Seattle receiver DK Metcalf (14). Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Former New York Jets safety Marcus Maye (20) intercepts a pass intended for Seattle receiver DK Metcalf (14). Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Over their two years together, Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins combined for 9 interceptions 30 pass breakups, 10 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. Williams has arguably the best coverage range of any safety in the NFL, while Jenkins was second on the team in tackles both seasons.

The offseason additions of safeties Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu could actually be an athletic upgrade over Williams and Jenkins. Maye has the range to be a single-high safety and the coverage skills to step into the slot. Mathieu has been a force all over the field throughout his nine-year career.

Defensive star Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and versatile P.J. Williams give the Saints a versatile and talented safety unit. All four are playmakers capable of playing multiple roles in the secondary and create chaos all over the field.

One important area that doesn't show up on the stat sheet, but could be an early season issue, is communication and chemistry. Cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore, Paulson Adebo, and Bradley Roby are capable of locking down the deepest receiving units.

Part of what makes the corners so effective was that they could be extremely aggressive in underneath coverage. That was possible because of tremendous communication and chemistry with their safeties. It is the type of chemistry that could take some time with a new group of safeties behind them.

Communication breakdowns cost football teams big plays. We see it all the time with major offensive line changes in the NFL. The same concerns are true for a defensive backfield. It will help that Gardner-Johnson and P.J. Williams remain, but reps for the secondary in training camp and the preseason will be crucial.

Former Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) breaks up a pass intended for Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton (14). Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY

Former Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu (32) breaks up a pass intended for Broncos receiver Courtland Sutton (14). Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY

The Saints face quarterbacks Tom Brady and Joe Burrow over the first month of the year. They’ll line up against receivers like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, D.J. Moore, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, Ja'Marr Chase, and Tee Higgins over that same period.

Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu are fine additions to the secondary and will be big-time playmakers in 2022. For a New Orleans team that has star power at every position, communication at the last line of defense might be the most concerning issue to begin the season.

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